First Love, Last Rites: Jesse Peretz’s Feature Directorial Debut

Set within the stark beauty of the Louisiana bayou, First Love, Last Rites, Jesse Peretz’s feature directorial debut, is an intimate drama about the idyllic romance of two misfits and its inevitable sad aftermath.

Though evoking an authentic locale, this adaptation of Ian McEwan’s short story is too claustrophobic in locale and too mundane in thematic range to generate the kind of enthusiasm that’s needed now a days for a big-screen presentation. Nonetheless, on its own terms, First Love, Last Rites is a well-acted, moderately engaging film that offers a number of rewards for supporters of American indies.

Joey (Giovanni Ribisi) and Sissel (Natasha Gregson Wagner) share an unappealing one-room house, raised above the ground by stilts. They spend most of their time talking, asking questions about their pasts–and above all exploring each other’s bodies in bed. The only interruption to their rustic affair comes from Adrian (Eli Marienthal), Sissel’s younger and lonely brother, who feels acutely the price of their parents’ separation. Annoyed by his noisy presence, whenever the couple wants to get rid of Adrian, they start stripping and making love. This element is used to a blackly comic effect in what is otherwise a slow-paced drama; pic could be trimmed by 10-15 minutes.

Sissel is estranged from her parents, but she wants Joey to meet her father, Henry (Hal Hartley regular, Robert John Burke), a talkative Vietnam vet whose wide concerns range from Eastern culture to fishing. Though friendly, Henry makes Joey uncomfortable, insisting on knowing whether he sleeps with his daughter, but somehow the two men become partners in a bizarre eel-catching business. While Joey makes traps for catching eels, Sissel gets a dull job at the local sugar factory.

Gradually, however, the initial excitement and infatuation gives way to boredom and ennui. The couple begins to argue and soon feelings of mistrust and mutual frustration tarnish their passionate affair. Before long, Joey and Sissel stop making love and cease communicating on any level.

Dissecting the essential–and universal–ingredients of first adolescent love, First Love is good at illustrating how initial thrills of freedom and lust gradually turn into confusion, fear and anxiety, particularly when the grand amour concerns innocent youngsters. The effects of divorce on both parents and children is also conveyed effectively.

It’s always a challenge to make an excitingly dramatic film about ennui, a task that is only partially achieved by helmer Peretz. In switching the locale of McEwan’s short story from an industrial seaside town in England to the hot Bayou country, Peretz has maintained the emotional core of the tale, but he has also aborted the poignancy, irony and black humor that the original material possessed.

This is a maiden effort and Peretz acquits himself honorably in evoking the right mood. He is greatly helped by his two youngsters, rising stars Natasha Gregson Wagner (Two Girls and a Guy) and Giovanni Ribisi (Suburbia), who look perfect for their parts. In highly modulated performances, Ribisi and Wagner show the fine line between intense and quiet feelings, sexual desire and alienation.

It’s time to celebrate the achievements of gifted lenser Tom Richmond (Straight to Hell, Little Odessa, Mother Night), who has shown remarkable diversity in endowing each film he has worked on with a distinctive look and rhythm.